It is one of the most important decisions parents take, but securing a place at a school in Kent could become more difficult in the coming years. Political Editor Paul Francis crunches the numbers and examines where the county’s pressure points are.
The lengths that parents go to to ensure they have the best chances of getting their children into the school they most want are well known.
According to a recent survey by Mumsnet, one in five had moved to or rented a house within a school’s catchment area in London to enhance their prospects.
With the stakes increasingly high, others are resorting to more sophisticated ruses, such as Freedom of Information requests to get data on places allocated to children out of the catchment area.
Councils and schools may frown on such manoeuvres, but they underline the challenge of providing not just enough places to match demand but enough places in good schools.
Throw in Kent’s selective system and you have an even more competitive battlefield - with the well-known practice of private tutoring for the 11-plus coming into play.
The good news is that in Kent, the statistics show most parents get their first choice of primary and secondary school and have done so for several years.
But there are challenges on the horizon. Ensuring the number of available places matches the number of children who want them is becoming more difficult.
Money is not the only issue, but it is one of the main ones - to the extent that Kent County Council’s own corporate risk register rates it as among the highest it has.
It says the government could fail to allocate enough so-called basic need grants - money for each additional pupil coming into the system.
This funding dilemma is not unique to Kent but is exacerbated by the huge housing growth the county is seeing.
Council leader Paul Carter, speaking earlier this year, said the authority was “between a rock and a hard place” when it came to finding the money needed.
He warned the authority would be faced with the equivalent of taking out a mortgage to fund school expansions, even though most secondaries were academy schools for which KCC had no responsibility.
He said: “Most of our secondary schools are now academies, yet we are having to pay to meet the need because the [government] grant does not cover the costs.”
He added: “The prospect of borrowing £100m through basically a mortgage over the next 25 years to expand schools that we have no control over is leaving a lot of councils very unhappy.”
Alongside funding, the ability of councils to meet demand is compromised by government policy that dictates that newly-created schools should be free schools - which councils have no control over.
The authority’s own commissioning plan, a five-year rolling document on how the demand will be met, says the failure of some of these schools to come to fruition or be delayed “will result in an insufficient number of places in some parts of the county over the next few years.”
The government denies Kent is being short-changed, saying it has committed money for extra places.
A Department for Education spokesman said:“We provide funding for all the school places based on local authorities’ own projections. Kent has received over £204m to provide new school places from 2011-2017, and has been allocated a further £70.8 million from 2017-2020.”
The numbers speak for themselves: according to KCC’s five-year commissioning plan, an additional 12,500 places will be needed between now and 2022, with the overall school population rising from 79,000 to 91,500.
That equates to 70 new primary classes along with 84 additional secondary classes over the period - the latter representing the equivalent of 12 new secondary schools.
These political skirmishes over money and free schools look set to continue in the coming years.
But if demand exceeds supply, it will be parents and children caught in the crossfire.
Under pressure - key factors putting the squeeze on schools
Population growth: The number of children born between 2002 and 2012 increased in Kent by 24%. While it dropped off in 2013, it is rising again. That demand led to an increased demand for primary places, now being felt by secondary schools.
Between mid-2015 and mid-2016, Kent’s population grew by an additional 17,300 people, bringing the total population at to 1,540,400. In 2017, the council created an additional 2,827 primary places and 851 secondary places. KCC says the figures signify the start of “sustained, significant pressures.”
Classroom standards: The strains facing the county’s schools are because they are a victim of success.
Alongside selective grammars, which are some of the highest performing in the country, Kent has seen improvements across the board.
Nearly 90% of secondary schools have been judged to be either good or outstanding by Ofsted, compared with 79% nationally and 83% in the south east.
Good schools inevitably attract more applications - evidenced by another rise in the number of applications from outside the county this year, with 3,289 seeking secondary school places compared to 2,744 in 2017, an increase of 545.
Government policy on meeting demand for extra places is for it to be through free schools. This is problematic for councils - they have to square the challenge of meeting demand without having the power to build new schools, although they can expand capacity at existing ones.
The question of what happens if free schools do not come forward has already created just such a problem. A free school sponsor for a secondary school in Margate could not be found when KCC first sought one. A second attempt did, but the delay means that pupils will go to a temporary site - some 16 miles away in Deal.
Migration into Kent
Kent can expect to see significant numbers of families moving into the county from London as authorities in the capital search for cheaper accommodation.
London councils are said to be waiting in the wings to buy up former Ministry of Defence land and other sites to place families in less costly property.
Education chiefs say they expect similar situations to the one in Canterbury, where the London borough of Redbridge bought land at Howe Barracks and rehoused 250 families there.
Education chiefs in Medway say they are confident of securing enough places but face similar issues around a growth in population.
Despite this, the authority insists it has enough spaces planned and delivered until 2021 and is already working on future plans for the delivery of more places.
However, in an unusual move the area’s three MPs last year highlighted concerns that the government’s house-building plans could put unsustainable pressure on schools and other services, describing revised targets as “quite impossible to meet.”
The government’s increased target would see the number of houses built each year rise from 1,281 to 1,665 up to 2035.